The night before the Grammys hit New York City’s Madison Square Garden for its 60th annual ceremony on Sunday, Jan. 28, another tradition will be unfolding about 30 blocks uptown at the Sheraton Times Square. For the past 42 years, industry legend Clive Davis‘ Pre-Grammy Gala has been one of the most prestigious soirees in all of entertainment, with the exec presiding over a who’s who of entertainment’s most revered figures and introducing one-of-a-kind performances that can launch careers and cement superstars as a result.
Here, Davis talks about what sets his party apart from any other, who’s expected to attend this year and the documentary about his roller coaster life, The Soundtrack of Our Lives, which is currently streaming on Apple Music.
Billboard: Why do you think the party has been so special for so many years?
Clive Davis: What makes it so special is the audience. Everybody’s a winner who attends and there’s no anxiety regarding any competition, so you have the heads of every music company coming unfailingly for 42 years. Going back years to [fellow legendary executives] Ahmet Ertegun or Mo Ostin… I can go on and on. This year we’ll have people like [Universal Music Group chairman and CEO) Lucian Grainge or [Capitol chairman and CEO] Steve Barnett, who all come to my living room. JAY-Z and Beyoncé come year after year. Mary J. Blige might have performed six or seven times. Whitney performed eight or nine times; she came whether she was performing. These people tell they me the entire year how much they’re looking forward to the night.
I’m also not a slave to the Grammys. There’s some duplication with nominees or new artists, but we’ll also have people like Johnny Mathis, or pair up the likes of Tony Bennett with Diana Krall, or Whitney with Natalie Cole, or Rod Stewart with Lou Reed. I remember saying to Alicia Keys, “What’s your dream now that you’ve been nominated 10, 15 times?” She said, “I’d love to do a performance with Aretha Franklin.” So I arranged that. You want the best in new music, but you also want the old timers.
How do you handle it when people call and say, “Clive, can I get a seat at the party? Can my girlfriend come to the party?”
Well, to get a plus one, you’ve gotta be Lucian Grainge. You’ve gotta be Rob Stringer. It’s very tough to get a plus one. Obviously it comes down to common sense. People who get invited are those who’ve earned it and speak for a part of the music world. You’re dealing with the fact the Recording Academy has to deal with the sponsors of the evening and its membership, so we only have half a room to invite guests. Plus we like to go beyond just music, because you do want [CBS chairman and CEO] Les Moonves or Julie Chen there, or Nancy Pelosi and her husband. Some of the biggest responses usually comes from a hot sports figure. Since we’re in New York and [former Marlins outfielder] Giancarlo Stanton is joining the Yankees after an MVP season hitting 59 home runs and having huge number of RBI’s, he’s coming. [Yankees pitcher] CC Sabathia is coming, he loves music. When all of these people call you up, it makes you feel great that they’re coming to celebrate.
Where are you during the actual performance portion?
I’m right at the side of the stage waiting for them to finish, then I’ll go right up and introduce people with a shout-out that does justice to them. I used to sit at a table, but now I MC. When I hear, “You’ve got six minutes ’til the next act,” what’s become the tradition is that I tell the audience who’s in the ballroom, instead of waiting around. I remember 10 years ago I said, “To give you an idea what makes this evening unique, I’m going to make three introductions before the music starts.” And I introduced Paul McCartney, Prince and Sly Stone from Sly & The Family Stone. There is a titillation that does occur, so the audience knows that they’re seeing the show amidst these people. You have everyone mixing and meeting with each other and bonding over the great commonality of their love of music.
What projects are you currently excited about?
Jennifer Hudson. With hip-hop dominating and with streaming ruling, we have to be careful to make room for the next Aretha, the next Whitney. Jennifer is someone who’s so unique and special that you have to make sure she’s heard and not just pushed to an urban mainstream that only plays hip-hop or artificially combine her with a rapper. I’m also working with Johnny Mathis, who’s doing the Great New American Songbook that I worked with Babyface on. So we’ll have have Johnny singing Bruno Mars, Adele and Leonard Cohen‘s “Hallelujah.” It actually came out of this Grammy party, he performed and the reaction was so powerful. And of course the documentary, The Soundtrack of Our Lives, which so moved me. Every artist that I was meaningfully involved with volunteered to be a part of it, from Patti Smith to Paul Simon. It goes back to the beginning and it tells a moving, touching and honest story. The fact that it entered iTunes at No. 1 for five weeks and stayed in the Top 10 for three months. Then lo and behold, I do Jimmy Fallon and it’s exploding at the top of the charts again. It’s a project that’s close to my heart.
As a titan of the industry, who impresses you?
Listen, Ed Sheeran is a major talent. I have no connection with him, but I’ve felt that he deserved nominations in all of the major categories. He’s had an extraordinary year and writes extraordinary songs. Also, Chance the Rapper who I’ve put on the stage (at the party last year) because he’s so strong, with quality and edge. You’ll see who I chose this year, but I think it’s the best of the young talent who don’t just have a hit song but are different and special. Some of them you can tell are one-hit-wonders, but there’s a lot of impressive young talent right now. So many artists who I have been involved with and discovered 20, 30 years ago are still headlining all over the world. These are the true artists.